While on a trip to Taiwan, a Hong Kong man strangled his Hong Kong girlfriend, then returned home and confessed. The city lacked an extradition pact with Taiwan, and Lam argued the only way to send him back for trial was new laws that also would enable sending criminal suspects to mainland China. She dismissed fears about the proposal – which would mean Hong Kong residents could face trial in China’s Communist Party-controlled courts – and pushed ahead.
As protests raged this summer, even in private Lam kept to her story that she, not Beijing, was the prime mover, driven by “compassion” for the young victim’s devastated parents. “This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government,” she told a room of Hong Kong businesspeople at a talk in August.
A Reuters examination has found a far more complicated story. Officials in Beijing first began pushing for an extradition law two decades ago. This pressure to extend the arm of Chinese law into Hong Kong’s independent British-style legal system intensified in 2017, a year before the slaying and two years before Lam’s administration announced its extradition bill. The impetus came from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party’s powerful internal anti-corruption body, which has been spearheading Chinese President Xi Jinping’s mass anti-graft campaign.
Xi’s crackdown spilled over dramatically into the streets of Hong Kong in the early hours of January 27, 2017. Among the targets of CCDI investigators at the time, two mainland Chinese officials with knowledge of the probe told Reuters, was a Chinese billionaire living in the city named Xiao Jianhua. A businessman with close ties to China’s political elite, Xiao was abducted that morning from his serviced apartment at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel. Unidentified captors whisked him out the entrance in a wheelchair with his head covered, a witness told Reuters.
The sensational kidnapping, widely reported at the time, was assumed by most people in this city of 7.5 million to have been the work of Chinese agents; Beijing has never commented publicly on the matter. Frustrated at the lack of legal means to get their hands on Xiao, the two Chinese officials told Reuters, the CCDI that same year began pressing mainland officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs about the urgent need for an extradition arrangement. The CCDI wanted a less politically damaging method than kidnapping for snaring fugitive mainlanders in Hong Kong, the officials said.
The two sides failed to strike a deal, but the killing in Taiwan would provide a new opening.
Pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong championed the calls for justice of the victim’s grieving parents, arranged an emotional news conference for them and pushed Lam’s administration to find a way to extradite the killer. One of China’s top officials for Hong Kong affairs pressed a senior Lam adviser in a private meeting in Beijing on the need to pass the proposal. Early in the crisis, when Lam privately proposed withdrawing the bill to quell the protests, senior Chinese officials rejected the move, only to relent months later as public fury mounted.
The extradition law would have been a boost to Chinese interests, a senior mainland official told Reuters, by eliminating the need to resort to kidnappings or other controversial extrajudicial acts in Hong Kong. The move would have helped us “avoid such problems,” he said.
This account of how the extradition bill was launched, promoted and ultimately unravelled is based on more than 50 interviews with mainland officials, current and former Hong Kong government officials, members of Lam’s cabinet, associates and friends of the Hong Kong leader from her days as a student activist, and current and former lawmakers and police officers. Reuters also drew on the public record of debates and correspondence regarding the bill in the city’s legislature, the Legislative Council.
One finding that emerges is how out of touch the mainland leadership and the people it has hand-picked to run Hong Kong were with public sentiment. When China reclaimed Hong Kong from British rule in 1997, it guaranteed under a “one-country, two-systems” formula that the city would keep its treasured freedoms for 50 years. In effect, the promise postponed a decision on how an authoritarian one-party state would absorb a liberty-loving capitalist city. After two decades of determined grassroots political work by Beijing to win hearts and minds, some of the bill’s leading supporters admit they were stunned by the hostility of so many Hong Kong citizens to Chinese rule.
“I was shocked to discover that in fact a very large proportion of us, people in Hong Kong, do not really feel at all comfortable with one-country, two-systems,” said Ronny Tong, a member of Lam’s top advisory body, the Executive Council, in an interview with Reuters. “How do you deal with this lack of confidence if not outright hatred about Beijing? How do you deal with it?”
In a written statement to Reuters, Lam’s office said the bill “was initiated, introduced and taken forward” by her administration. The central government in Beijing “understood” why the bill had to be introduced, the statement said, and “respected the view of the Chief Executive” and “supported her all the way.”
Chinese government authorities did not respond to questions for this article.
The city’s revolt has dealt a major setback to Xi Jinping, coming as he contends with a damaging trade war with the United States. And in a blow to China’s dreams of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland, the crisis appears to have boosted the popularity of Taiwan’s independence leaning President, Tsai Ing-wen, who faces the polls in January.
For Carrie Lam, 62 years old, the miscalculation has been crushing.
Her failure to grasp the public’s suspicion of the mainland’s legal system has shattered a reputation for competence built up over a 39-year career in public service. In the past she was sometimes referred to by admirers as Hong Kong’s Iron Lady, for a resolute manner reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s. Now, some say a combination of her willfulness and her decades at the top levels of Hong Kong’s insular public service blinded her to the political danger of the extradition bill.
“The one mystery, the one puzzle is, how is it possible that Carrie Lam didn’t see the implications of such a proposal?” said Margaret Ng, a barrister who was a longtime lawmaker in the pro-democracy camp.
Born into a working class family, Lam grew up in a small apartment in the suburb of Wan Chai on Hong Kong island. Like many of the city’s government elite, she is a Catholic, educated in the city’s Catholic schools, and she remains devout. At St. Francis’ Canossian School and then St. Francis’ Canossian College, she was a star student.
In a 2013 radio interview, she revealed a glimpse of a fierce competitive streak. Lam told her interviewer of an enduring memory of her school days: The single occasion she failed to finish at the top of her class in a big exam. She said she cried.
When she began studying at the University of Hong Kong, Lam intended to be a social worker. Lee Wing-tat, a former lawmaker from the pro-democracy camp, was a fellow student. He recalls Lam was an activist in those days, taking part in protests. A citation when she was awarded an honorary degree in 2013 described how Lam had campaigned for better treatment for poor Chinese fishing families from the British colonial government.
She was intensely interested in welfare for the underprivileged, Lee said. And she was already a talented organizer. “You give her a job and she will deliver results,” Lee said.
In 1979, as post-Maoist China was opening up, students from Hong Kong were invited to send a delegation to Beijing to visit elite universities, Lee said. The Democracy Wall movement was in full swing there, with big posters calling for political and social reform appearing on a long brick wall. The Hong Kong students wanted to meet prominent liberals and soak up the atmosphere, Lee said. Lam was involved in negotiating the visit with the tough Communist bureaucrats at Xinhua News Agency, then Beijing’s unofficial mission in the British colony.
“They made it very difficult for her,” Lee recalls. “They didn’t want us to meet them.” The visit went ahead, and a highlight was a banquet Lam attended where a leading liberal journalist was a guest.
“At that time, Carrie was not so conservative,” Lee said. “She was a democrat. Just like me. After government, things changed.”
Lam abandoned plans to become a social worker and joined the colonial Hong Kong government in 1980 as an administrative officer, the elite cadre of officials who are given broad exposure to different government roles as preparation for promotion to more senior posts.
In the Hong Kong civil service, well paid administrative officers have traditionally enjoyed considerable power and prestige in a political system without the scrutiny public servants receive in a full democracy. Lam rose fast and embraced challenging roles. Her critics say she also became arrogant and dismissive of advice from peers and subordinates.
“She has never been known to be a team player,” says retired civil servant Anson Chan, who served as Hong Kong’s deputy leader before and after the handover. “That has a lot to do with her character and was also instrumental in her spectacular downfall.”
Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.